Russian Orthodox ‘Fundamentalists’ Radicalizing Secessionists in Ukraine

July 3, 2014
Volunteers are hastily trained at bases of the Russian Orthodox Army. Photo by ITAR-TASS

Staunton, July 3 – Russian Orthodox “fundamentalists” have formed their own armed units and provided both military and ideological support for pro-Moscow secessionists in eastern Ukraine. By so doing, they have radicalized opinion among the latter by calling for a “crusade” not just in the east but against all of Ukraine.

In the issue of NG-Religii released yesterday
, that publication’s commentator Vladislav Maltsev cites the judgment of Valentin Nalivaychenko, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, that such “Orthodox fundamentalism” is “the greatest threat” which those engaged in aggression against Ukraine could come up with.

This addition of religious ideas to what many view as a secular ethno-national or geo-political conflict contributes to the radicalism of the latter, convincing its followers that God is on their side but that they must never compromise but rather be prepared to fight to the death against those they believe are not just political opponents but the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps recognizing this danger, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has condemned “so-called political Orthodoxy” and the use “in the struggle for the achievement of earthy goals religious rhetoric and symbols” and publicly worried about what could happen if a religious “component” is added to “a geopolitical conflict.”

But if the hierarchy has denounced this group, there have been frequent reports about the participation of priests in it and even of combat deaths among them, reports that have been disputed or may reflect the participation of priests from the Russian Federation rather than from Ukraine.

In his article, Maltsev says that an armed group going by the name of the Russian Orthodox Army had been formed or arrived in the Donbass by May 3 when a video clip of its members appeared on the Internet. One of its commanders after being captured and released said it had “about 100” members and consisted “mostly of Ukrainians.”

This “army” was in fact active before that, according to subsequent news reports who cited its leaders as saying at that time that the group “is based on the Christian religion and motivated by a feeling of lost honor and victories which many have felt since the Soviet Union as destroyed and Ukraine became an independent state.”

Indeed, Nikolay Verin, the 33-year-old “commander” of the unit told Russian television that the group was created in February after the victory of the Maidan in Kyiv, that it quickly grew to more than 4,000 effectives, and that it specialized in intelligence operations, building seizures and defense against Ukrainian military forces.

Unlike many other secessionist groups, the Orthodox Army appears to have had relatively few veterans from other hot spots or people with military or security service backgrounds. Consequently, Maltsev says, it is probably less effective as a military force than some of the others.

But as an ideological one, he continues, it is extremely influential, providing ideas and enthusiasm to the other units via religious services and propaganda. Moreover, it appears to be the case that the Russian Orthodox Army may be a kind of advance guard for further Russian aggression given that its commanders claim it has representatives in many places.

The Russian Orthodox Army is closely associated with Yury Kotenok, the insurgent’s Donbass governor and has reinforced his view that the secessionist must more to “expand beyond the borders of the Donbas” and engage in a “Russian ‘reconquest’” of more or even all of Ukraine.

Another disturbing aspect of this “army” is its close association with the “ultra-Orthodox” Russian National Unity which, Maltsev says, “has remained loyal to Aleksandr Barkashov,” a shadowy figure on the margins of the extreme right of the Russian political system since the 1990s.

Maltsev concludes his detailed article with the observation that “in the regions of Ukraine where armed conflict is taking place, groups which have not found their place under conditions of peace and in the framework of the social institutions of the post-Soviet pace are taking an active part.” Among them are Orthodox fundamentalists animated by ideas of “imperial revenge.”